AVP analysis: Emmy winner, beach aficionado Tom Feuer breaks down the first weekend

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Nick Lucena-AVP Tom Feuer 7/21/2020
Nick Lucena hits against Trevor Crabb/Robert Beck, AVP
Tom Feuer, a four-time national Emmy Award winner, is a veteran volleyball writer and producer. He has worked 11 Olympics for NBC Sports, most recently as a producer for beach volleyball at the Rio Games in 2016.
Feuer has also worked for Prime Ticket/Fox Sports West as an executive producer where he produced AVP broadcasts in 1989-1990, and later, pioneered the popular “AVP Classics.”
While at NIKE in 1997, he was event director for the first FIVB World Championships of Beach Volleyball. Feuer has also won 15 regional Emmy Awards and, most recently, won the Grant Burger Media Award from the AVCA. He is also a contributing editor for DiG Magazine. An avid player, Feuer finished second with Pat Powers at the 1981 Estero Open.
Tom Feuer

On the surface, the AVP’s much anticipated 2020 season opener in the parking lot of the Long Beach Convention Center might have played out like a verse from Aerosmith’s 1974 classic rock hit: “Same Old Story, Same Old Song and Dance.”

April Ross and Alix Klineman, Phil Dalhausser and Nick Lucena capture the titles, what else is new, ho hum, right?!

Wrong.

The tournament was significant for a number of reasons. First off, this past weekend would have, pre-Covid 19, marked five days before the opening ceremonies of the 2020 Tokyo Olympics and six days before the first ball served on the initial day of the Olympic tournament in Shiokaze Park. Moreover, it was the first world-class beach volleyball competition anyone has seen since the sport basically shut down in March.

The 40-year-olds, Dalhausser and Lucena, became the first pair of 40-something teammates to win a major tournament together. For Dalhausser, it was win number 99 in his career and guarantees that his streak of having won at least one tourney in every year since 2005 continues (Miles Partain was 3 when that streak started!).

Moreover, almost from the get-go Phil looked like his “old self.” A slow-starting team the last few years, D&L took it from the gun this time out, showing no mercy, no quarter to Ed Ratledge and Skylar del Sol, 21-9, 21-12 at 8:15 a.m. Saturday morning (although del Sol detonated an absolute bomb that whizzed by Dalhausser’s block that was the hardest hit of the tournament, bar none).

Phil and Nick kept it up against Theo Brunner and Casey Patterson, 21-12, 21-14 in round two Saturday afternoon and then the Beast really roared Sunday morning as Dalhausser served and blocked Tri Bourne and Trevor Crabb off the court in the semis in a set-one stretch that saw them come from being down 8-5 to going up 11-8 in one memorable run. Lucena was no bystander. He looked healthy, engaged, and when it really mattered he was able to side out consistently in the final against Jake Gibb and Taylor Crabb.

At this level all it takes is a play or two to decide the outcome. In set one, after Dalhausser and Lucena took a timeout, Taylor Crabb committed a service mistake followed by a Gibb hit that went long decided it, 21-19 in favor of the Floridians. I was surprised that D&L served Taylor as much as they did in the first set, but they had a nice run in the middle that gave them somewhat of a cushion.

In the third it was a broken play Lucena block (yes you read that right!) that made it 13-12 and then in the freeze at 14-13 Crabb hit out and that was that. And for the 13th time as a partnership Nick and Phil came away with the victory.

One of the nice things about the tournament was that it included the crème de la crème of the USA beach volleyball world (with a notable exception on the women’s side, the absence of Kerri Walsh Jennings — whose battles with the AVP are well-documented — and Brooke Sweat). But in a typical year there are a number of AVP/FIVB conflicts on the schedule, while this time out everybody was on a level playing field.

But the concern still exists on the USA men’s side that the young talent (exempting 28-year-old Taylor Crabb) has still not revealed itself. This would have been the tournament potentially to do so.

It figured that maybe the vets like Dalhausser, Lucena, Gibb, Trevor Crabb, Bourne, John Hyden, Casey Patterson, Theo Brunner, John Hyden, Jeremy Casebeer … might need a tournament or two to get warmed up. But all of the above acquitted themselves reasonably well.

That being said, there is still hope on that horizon and his name is Andy Benesh. He is 25, 6-foot-9 (thank God the USA has a young big fellow) and has played in only 13 AVPs. He and 23-year-old teammate Eric Beranek placed ninth, but showed great poise in winning two three-set, hour-plus battle royales.

Meanwhile another young ‘un to keep tabs on is Miles Partain.

It is invigorating to see another great come out of the Pacific Palisades area that once was such a hotbed of beach talent in the 1970’s and ‘80’s, which included Randy Stoklos, Kent Steffes, Ricci Luyties, Fred Sturm, Chris Marlowe, Gary Hooper Dane Selznick, and, well, Sinjin and Andrew Smith lived in a house in Brentwood just abutting the Palisades as well.

Partain was introduced to the game by Stoklos, but is a very different type of player than the behemoth force of nature that Stoklos was. Miles is 6-2, a split blocker, and is extremely crafty.

Partain played in Long Beach with the veteran Ty Loomis, who at 41 is 23 years senior to the young prodigy. Loomis is only 6-3, but the two of them together have terrific ball control. Would it have been better for Miles to play with Paul Lotman, a traditional blocker with whom he placed fifth in AVP Chicago last year? Yes, but then that team would not have had enough points to qualify in the first place.

Loomis/Partain easily knocked off the McKibbin brothers in the qualifier 21-18, 21-13 before losing to Billy Allen and Stafford Slick to finish 11th.

What totally sets apart Ross and Klineman is their absolute control of the court.

Ross had a terrific tournament while doing everything well consistently. Klineman was more up and down. She struggled to pass at times early in the semis against the reigning world champions, Canadians Sarah Pavan and Melissa Humana-Paredes. That was the primary reason Team Canada won the first set, 21-14.

But for someone who has been a beach player only since 2017, Klineman has a sublime cool. Moreover, she LOVES to bang from the left side, a weapon that I am sure we will see more of down the line. With a new coaching team, Brazilian Guilherme Fiapo Tenius, and Angie Akers, fresh from coaching the Dutch national squad, we will probably see even more wrinkles from the American duo.

Meanwhile, Humana-Paredes and Pavan had their problems. In the first round of the tournament they ran into a buzzsaw in the presence of Karissa Cook and Jace Pardon. The Canadians were down 9-12 in the third before going on an epic 6-0 run to close it out. Until the end of that match, Humana-Paredes was not herself, especially her passing.

Shortly thereafter on Saturday afternoon, the Canadians got sent to the losers bracket by Kelly Claes and Sarah Sponcil in the second round 21-18, 21-17 in a match that was not, as they say, as close as the score indicated. Claes especially was en fuego. Never seen her dominate the net the way she did in that match and she was going up against the 6-foot-5 Pavan! At that point, Saturday afternoon it looked like Claes and Sponcil might win the whole darn thing.

Then a funny thing happened on the way to the Convention Center.

Another Canadian, Brandie Wilkerson, served them off the court in the semifinals. Wilkerson and Sara Hughes, who came into the tournament a little under the radar, absconded with a 21-18, 21-15 victory that sent them to the final.

Many people forget that at the end of 2018, Wilkerson was on the short list of the best players in the world. She and her Canadian teammate Heather Bansley won FIVB tournaments consecutively in Las Vegas and Chetumal, and before that a big FIVB victory in Warsaw and in a p1440 event in San Jose.

Brandie had the tough luck of having her best season in the only one of the four year cycle that did not have a World Championship or an Olympic Games. Otherwise she would be more of a household name in the sport. Wilkerson’s vertical leap, her line-drive serves, her hard extreme angle hits and being a lefty (Misty May-Treanor pointed out on the NBC broadcast that being a southpaw is worth at least two points) make her a formidable presence when she is “on.”

Hughes, Wilkerson’s teammate for Long Beach, suffered from similar high expectations. Coming out of USC, where she partnered with Claes, they became the most dominant team in collegiate history (albeit it is a short history). The prevailing wisdom was that Hughes was expected to go farther as a professional than Claes when the two split up. That has not been the case. Hughes had the misfortune of hitching her Olympic wagon to Summer Ross, and the two did not meet expectations, exempting a fifth-place finish at last summer’s World Championships. Shortly after that, though Summer became injured and Hughes was out of a partner for the Olympic race. Now, with Covid-19 throwing caution to the wind, Hughes may have a shot with presumably (?) Lauren Fendrick if there are enough FIVB qualifying tournaments between this fall and the middle of next June. But it is a long shot.

Anyway, Wilkerson and Hughes acquitted themselves well against the “A Team” in the final, but like with all of the great ones, Klineman and April Ross made the big plays down the stretch when it mattered, especially when Wilkerson and Hughes were up 20-16 in the first set.

A 6-1 “A team” run salted game one away with Wilkerson making a number of errors. With Ross and Klineman sporting a 47-2 record when winning the first set, it looked like the party was over and indeed it was, a straight set victory and their eighth AVP win in 13 tournaments together. Nevertheless, it looks as if both Hughes and Wilkerson will be a handful in the next couple of weeks.

One of the nicer developments of the tourney on the women’s side was the play of Traci Callahan and Crissy Jones, who finished fifth, a performance which was highlighted by a win over the fifth seeds Fendrick and Emily Day.

Callahan (the former Traci Weamer) is now 33, but played a total of just two tournaments from 2016 until 2018. A former blocker, she is now one of the tallest defenders in the world at 6-2, but is getting a better understanding of how to play behind a block. Jones is a formidable presence at the net and together they are one of the most improved teams in the world to say nothing of the USA. Jones will eventually be one of the top handful of blockers in the U.S. She is only 23, and last year with Zana Muno, took third in Hermosa Beach after being the 47th seed in the qualifier! It was hard to ascertain a lot from Jones’ offensive game in Long Beach, since Callahan was getting the majority of serves, but when she did get a few swings in she hit a very heavy ball.

In a two-star in Siem Reap, Cambodia, in February, where they placed fifth, Callahan/Jones knocked the eventual winners, Fendrick and Hughes, into the losers bracket with a clutch three-set win, 15-13 in the third. In Long Beach they came through the qualifier, but it was far from easy. Two of their three matches went over one hour, but in the last one, they garnered sweet revenge over Terese Cannon and Kelly Reeves, the team that knocked them out in Cambodia.

In a perfect world it would be nice if the tournament field had 16 teams rather than the current 12 and have no qualifier at all with a straight double-elimination format. There are some whom I talked to that liked the 12-team limit, as it eliminated the “riff raff,” but given that there are only three tourneys this season, from a player-development level, it would be nice to see all teams in action at least twice.

So, what to look for in Long Beach, round two? My money on the men’s side is for a return to the main draw for Billy Allen and Stafford Slick, along with Benesh and Beranek. Miles Evans and Ricardo would be my next choice. Knowing how prideful Ricardo is, I cannot believe it sat well with the three-time Olympic medalist, even at age 45, to lose in a qualifier. Evans, meanwhile, has been on an upward trajectory over the last few years.

When it comes to the men’s main draw I would expect Bourne and Trevor Crabb to have a better tournament. I am not sold on their defensive alignment but they are a better team than they showed last weekend.

On the women’s side, Claes and Sponcil need to exhibit more consistency in their play. They looked like world beaters against Humana-Paredes and Pavan, but struggled against Hughes and Wilkerson. Whether they can knock off the world champions (Humana-Paredes/Pavan) and the silver medalists (Ross/Klineman) is a story that bears watching. If they hope to get that second USA Olympic bid on offer (ahead of Walsh Jennings and Sweat) they will need to be steadier.

Coming out of the women’s qualifier, I like Cannon and Reeves making it this week and a return for Cook and Pardon, who must still be kicking themselves for letting the Canadian world champs off the hook last weekend.

The AVP should be applauded for pulling off a logistical nightmare with their set-up in Long Beach. These Covid-19 events are not easy in that every facet of event operations and event/streaming and TV production has to be analyzed and re-engineered in a whole new light. And the AVP totally nailed it. Here’s to crossed fingers and toes that nothing untoward happens in the next two weeks.

But there are a couple of modifications that I would like to see.

For one, I don’t know that the big introductions by Mark Schuermann play that well in an empty stadium. For another, it was nice when the Amazon Prime production featured Gibb/Crabb coach Rich Lambourne in the booth. He was extremely articulate and analytical and added a lot to the broadcast. Any more coaches and/or players would be extremely welcome. And I know it is a whole lot of additional expense, but it would be nice to have a multi-cam court two experience, maybe an unmanned “lockoff” in one of the end zones?

The NBC broadcast of the women’s final featured the addition of Misty May-Treanor. And while the mechanics of doing a broadcast are always difficult for a newbie, she provided some wonderful insights working with Kevin Wong. I especially liked her thoughts on whom to serve and when, as well as a dry sense of humor. Chris Marlowe was an excellent traffic cop weaving in Wong, May-Treanor and Dain Blanton.

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